Kate Long: A handbook for success
The author of The Bad Mother's Handbook, Kate Long turns out to be more yummy than scummy mummy. But, she tells Emma Hagestadt, just don't call her lucky
Friday 14 March 2008
It's not yet five years since Kate Long hit the literary jackpot with her debut novel, The Bad Mother's Handbook. With three further bestselling novels to her name, a popular TV adaptation starring Catherine Tate and with Hollywood beckoning, you might expect to find Long a slave to her newly created brand. Instead, she seems one of those enviably energetic people who manage to cram several lifetimes into one.
The author's large Edwardian villa, situated on the outskirts of a Shropshire market town, is home to a family of budding enthusiasts. The novelist's own passions – aside from the writing – include collecting vintage dolls' houses, the plight of the water vole and an increasing addiction to online writing communities. Her husband, Simon, wins prizes for floral displays (he's built a Spitfire from bedding plants) and her two young sons, Ben and Toby, are usually to be found staring down the wrong end of a microscope. Within hours of my arrival we're standing on a bridge in Tesco's car park scanning a scrotty stretch of river for signs of riparian wildlife.
"What journalists really want to hear," says Long, as we head back (having failed to save any endangered species en route) "is that I'm just a lucky mum who scribbled. I'm usually included in lists of other lucky people. By which, I suppose, they mean common. They seem to forget I've been writing for the last ten years; I've got a first-class degree; I went to school with Monica Ali, for goodness sake!"
Long's northern credentials, however, are not in dispute. Brought up in Blackrod, a village between Wigan and Bolton, her delivery is deadpan, her vowels Lancastrian and her public persona warm. An English degree at Bristol was followed by a year of teacher training in Exmouth and a job in Guildford, where she met her husband, a transplanted Yorkshireman, in a pub. Anxious to return north, she took a position in a secondary school in Chester, where she taught for 13 years.
A capable and much-liked teacher, Long says she had no inkling that she wanted to be a novelist until the day she opened a magazine and came face to face with a short story written by a girl she'd known at university. "I was really, really cross. Really teed off!" gasps Long. "I realised I quite wanted that... but I'd have to do what she did, and write something first."
With several unpublished novels under her belt, a grant from the West Midlands Art Council enabled Long to put her two young sons in a nursery for the summer. The bulk of The Bad Mother's Handbook was written in eight weeks, but it took another year to finish. A black comedy spanning the histories of three generations of unmarried mothers, Long's incisive prose, belting dialogue and slag-heap setting won her two agents and a six-figure deal. Her publishers initially objected to the title, which sounded like a post-modern parenting manual, but Long stuck to her guns.
While any number of northern writers – Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson et al – have written about bright girls intent on social mobility and escape, Long's fiction broke new ground with a set of heroines who preferred to stay put. "I wanted to write about what it's like being an ordinary working mum," says Long, "about characters whose background lies in that grey area between the working class and the lower middle class." She says she was fed up with reading novels about women with nannies and fantastic jobs.
With her novels occupying that indeterminate territory between commercial and literary fiction, and prettily packaged as chick lit, Long often worries that they may have lured unsuspecting punters to a chardonnay-free zone. One reader was so appalled by Long's second novel Swallowing Grandma (2005) – a narrative concerning a sadistic relationship between a geriatric and her young carer – that she posted a note on Amazon saying she was looking forward to the summer and putting Long's book on the barbecue.
Her new novel, The Daughter Game (Picador, £12.99), isn't so much a departure from her earlier work as a refinement. An astute and very funny account of mid-life breakdown, it tells the story of 42-year-old English teacher Anna Lloyd, who, desperate for a baby, strikes up an affair with her dopey brother-in-law. To complicate life further, she also develops a maternal crush on one of the more troubled pupils in her class. "Middle age is one thing," says Long. "But middle age when you can't have children and have always wanted them is another. I have a huge respect for women who learn to live with that."
Some of the most entertaining sections in the book are Long's comic send-ups of staffroom life. "I've always been interested in relationships where power struggles are going on," says Long. "In teaching there's a tension within the framework before you start. You spend so much time lying, and being incredibly polite in situations when you'd like to kick a desk over." She has fond memories of her own schooldays, in particular two "fantastic" English teachers: Miss Johnston, who taught her where to put her apostrophes and introduced her to the poetry of Ted Hughes, and Miss Windle, a "brilliantly clever, quietly spoken Quaker, rumoured to have spent time at Greenham Common".
Long's fiction is preoccupied by issues of identity and reproductive errors, and, as any amateur psychologist might suggest, could be related to the author's own history as an adopted child. Long is not so sure. She has nothing but admiration for the man and woman who raised her. "My parents were transparent from the word go," she says. "I've never had a doubt about who I was." Taking me to into the hall, she points out a large framed photograph of the Blackrod Brass Band, showing her adoptive grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, the founder of the band, a genial-looking patriarch in a bowler hat. "My granddad died in 1976, but he had a great influence on me. He had to leave school at 14, but made sure my mum had the best education he could manage. I remember him as a really sharp, funny, humane man. I always appreciated what a terrific privilege education was."
For the author of a volume entitled The Bad Mother's Handbook, Kate Long is unfashionably sunny about the mixed blessing of motherhood. She certainly doesn't see herself as a member of the Lionel Shriver/Rachel Cusk school of sceptics about maternity. "When the book first came out, I had lots of offers to write about how I was an inadequate mother," says Long. "Actually, I really like being a mum. I feel fulfilled by it and think I do quite a good job. I think having children has enriched my work. Though there have been times when I've been physically impeded."
Clearing away a collection of Lego water voles from her desk, Long checks on the rest of the day's schedule. The boys are due at Cubs, and later that evening she's booked as the star turn at Cleckheaton public library. "They'll want to know all the gossip about Catherine Tate. How she refused to have her hair cut or coloured for the show. For the record, it's really thick, and a lovely red. She's a nice-looking woman." For Long, the stress of life on set brought her out in a bad case of facial hives.
Although she's not a fan of the publicity circuit, Long's years in the classroom make her a more practised performer than most. Her props include the running scrapbooks in which she draws up time-lines and character questionnaires. "I know, before I've written a word, roughly what's going to happen and how it will end. I have to plot everything out. I'm driven by enormous insecurity, and like to cover all bases, several times."
For her next novel, the story of a grandmother's fight to reclaim contact with a grandchild lost to a messy divorce, she's even cut out visual aids, including photographs of Ian Carmichael (the suave love interest) and Anna Friel.
Packing up her bag of tricks, Long checks her email. She's delighted to discover that she's been accepted on to a dormouse survey this summer. "At the risk of sounding like a mad Christian, one of the things I keep coming back to in my books is that you should be grateful for what you have. I think that's the secret to being at least contented, if not happy. I look back on my teenage years when I spent months being miserable... and now I think, for what? As my dad used to say: 'Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.'"
Biography: Kate Long
Kate Long, born in 1964, was raised in a small village in Lancashire. A scholarship girl at Bolton School, Girls' Division, she went on to study English at Bristol University, and to train as a teacher. On the acceptance of her first novel, The Bad Mother's Handbook (2004), she gave up teaching to write full-time. Her subsequent novels include Swallowing Grandma (2005) and Queen Mum (2006). The Bad Mother's Handbook was adapted as an ITV drama in 2007 starring Catherine Tate. Long now lives in Whitchurch, Shropshire, with her husband Simon, a prize-winning member of Newcastle-under-Lyme's Recreation and Amenities department, and her two sons aged 10 and seven. Her new novel, The Daughter Game, is published by Picador.
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